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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Das Wunder der Heliane, Op.20 (1927) [167.26]
Sara Jakubiak (soprano) – Heliane: Brian Jagde (tenor) – The Stranger: Josef Wagner (baritone) – The Ruler: Derek Welton (baritone) – The Gatekeeper: Okko von der Damerau (mezzo-soprano) – The Messenger: Burkhard Ulrich (tenor) – The Blind Judge
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Marc Albrecht
rec. live, Deutsche Oper Berlin, 30 March and 1 April 2018
Bonuses: Act III Intermezzo rec. 1928 cond. Frieder Weissmann + photographic gallery
NAXOS 2.110584-85 DVD [2 discs: 167 mins]

It is fairly unusual to find the booklet notes for a commercial recording paying tribute to a rival; but the accolade bestowed here by Brendan G Carroll, the author of the definitive biography of the composer, to Michael Haas for his re-discovery of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane when he launched his 1993 series of ‘Entartete Musik’ for Decca is well merited. That 3-CD set was hailed ecstatically and nearly unanimously by the critics as a major discovery of what was described as “Korngold’s masterpiece”, with only a few dissenting voices reiterating the old criticism of Korngold’s music as over-sweet – an objection which was hard to sustain in the face of such trenchantly violent writing at the dramatic climaxes. That Decca studio recording was so self-evidently exemplary that it seems to have deterred any competitors from entering the lists until Naxos last year gave us a live relay of a performance from Freiburg; and now Naxos have entered into competition with themselves with this video from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. While the Freiburg set was, despite its merits, overshadowed by the Decca recording from twenty years earlier (and lacked a libretto, essential in this highly symbolic and word-heavy opera), this new production not only gives the opera its first outing in the visual medium (with well-judged and translated subtitles), but also proves a real challenge to its Decca predecessor in musical terms.

The superior quality of the solo singing is apparent from the very beginning. Korngold scored his principal tenor for that rare combination of a Wagnerian heldentenor with lyrical warmth and a free-ranging and open top register. Singers who can fill these requirements are rare indeed, and Decca cast the role with the young John David de Haan, a sweetly lyrical singer who managed the role under studio conditions but would have had real difficulty in coping with Korngold’s frequently inconsiderate weight of accompaniment in the theatre; Naxos employed the more conventionally heroic tenor Ian Storey, with a resultant sense of strain in the high register and some ugliness of tone. In Berlin we have a real discovery, the ideal combination of lyric and heroic voice in the shape of the American Brian Jagde. There are occasions when he finds himself overwhelmed by Korngold’s tumultuous orchestra, but these are few and far between; and for much of the time he delivers phrase after phrase with strength and warmth which suggest a great potential in Wagnerian heroic roles (if his voice holds out!). In the opening scene he confronts the Gatekeeper, an almost incidental role which nevertheless demands some real singing in his two brief scenes. Decca cast the role from strength in the shape of René Pape, but Derek Welton challenges him for nobility of tone and brings a real sense of wonder to his solo in the final Act where he recounts how Heliane saved his daughter from death.

The role of Heliane’s husband “Der Herrscher”, literally translated as “the ruler” but generally described as “the King” in both the subtitles and at intervals throughout the opera itself, is an ungrateful one for any singer. For much of the time, especially in the later scenes, he is reduced to impotent ranting which Korngold frequently smothers beneath a rumbustious degree of violent orchestration, making it close to impossible for the vocal line to be clearly heard. By virtue of sheer acting ability, Josef Wagner manages to engage the sympathy of the listener, and his words are clarified by the subtitles even when his voice threatens to submerge beneath the tumult emanating from the pit. The only other substantial male solo part is that for the “blind judge” – it is unclear whether he is to be regarded as related to the other characters, who occasionally refer to him as “father” (perhaps out of respect for his age). On the Decca set this was cast luxuriously with Nicolai Gedda; here we have Berkhard Ulrich, who has a respectable track record in character roles such as Mime, and still possesses the vocal heft to make his mark even when his voice turns harsh at climaxes. Okka van der Damerau is a baleful presence as the Messenger, a sort of parallel to the Nurse in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten.

But the central role in any performance of this opera is that of the title character – the only person on the stage to receive a name, another parallel with Die Frau ohne Schatten. Decca again scored by casting the role with Anna Tomova-Sintov, although by the time she came to record the role she was reaching the age of retirement; here the part is taken by Sara Jakubiak who despite her relative youth has already made her mark in Wagnerian roles such as Eva and Elsa, as well as Korngold’s Marietta in Die tote Stadt. At first she seems to take a little while to settle into the role, but she quickly hits her stride producing sounds that are at once both lusciously warm and delicately beautiful. Nor do the more strenuous sections of the score find her wanting, even though Marc Albrecht quite rightly lets the orchestra have its head in the many passages of emotional climax. She is afflicted with the one miscalculation of the production, when she steps out of her dress to appear unclothed before the Stranger, leaving the garment standing upright on the stage like a mannequin in a shop window which ridiculously fails to be noticed by the Ruler when he returns to the stage. A more diaphanous garment would have been more believable; but it is unusual in any modern operatic production that one’s sole criticism relates to the matter of whether a striptease is properly managed!

Actually the production is not quite as faultless as that – the stage set is bare and functional rather than atmospheric, and the cell in which the Stranger is confined in Act One seems to be remarkably spacious for its purpose – but the updating of the action to the period of the opera’s composition is not at all anachronistic; and the costumes for Heliane herself, deliberately echoing Marlene Dietrich, are both handsome in their own right and lend the character the right sense of mystery and glamour. And the direction of Christof Loy brings all the characters vividly to life, with interaction between the singers precisely observed and plenty of inter-personal reaction picked up by the eagle-eyed video producer. Even such potentially risible situations as the Stranger rising from the dead, sitting up on the table on which his body has been laid out as if for burial, produce a real frisson of excitement with the stage action precisely mirroring Korngold’s magical harmony and orchestration. The closing scene of the opera, where characters seem to die and be resurrected with doubtless symbolic intention but a total disregard for credibility, is delicately handled by the producer with the whole of the chorus keeling over in death (surely a rarity even in operatic circles?) and only Heliane and the Stranger – and the witnessing Gatekeeper – left alive. Why this should be so, is not quite clear; but the situation conjured up by Loy is no stranger than Korngold’s original.

The musical and dramatic parallels between Korngold’s score and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten are obvious to any listener familiar with the earlier opera; but they never descend to sheer imitation, and Korngold’s orchestration – with its characteristic use of keyboards and tuned percussion – adds new patterns and textures to his often wildly chromatic harmonies. At times we are not far from the world of Wozzeck, especially for example in the rampaging passages for the chorus at the outset of Act Three – superbly encompassed by a very large body of singers who ride triumphantly over the uproar from the pit. Albrecht controls the score with mastery, thoroughly enjoying the lusciously romantic passages as well as the dramatically charged concatenation of sound. And all this is captured in superbly judged sound, with the balances between stage and pit realistically rendered even when I suspect some discreet microphone placement may have been made to assist the audibility of the singers. Never mind those critics who continue to describe Korngold scornfully as a composer who only realised his destiny when he was taken up by Hollywood; this production will surely convince any unbiased listener that Das Wunder der Heliane is a great work which deserves to be heard and seen more often, at least when the singers able to command the vocal writing are to be found. Congratulations too should be rendered to everyone involved for resisting any temptation to subject the score to any form of abridgement.

I am no great fan of modern operatic productions, but this DVD seems to me to be precisely the sort of thing that should be preserved for future generations, a truly ground-breaking achievement. And there is a delightful bonus in the shape of a sound recording of the orchestral interlude preceding Act Three, made at the time of the first performance in experimental stereo sound. This is a magnificent set which deserves every success.

Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review: Robert Cummings

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